Film The Visual

Alex Garland’s Nightmare: What We Learn When Characters Go Through Hell

Writer Alex Garland forces characters to confront their own fears — with mixed results.

What situation would you rather be in?

You’re in 28 Days Later (2002, dir. Danny Boyle). You wake up from a coma in an abandoned hospital. You find the streets of London desolate and empty. Newspapers cry out “EVACUATION!” You see murals to the dead, collages of grief on street corners from a cause unknown to you. Any people you discover are rabid, vicious, and inhuman.

You’re in Sunshine (2007, dir. Danny Boyle). You’re hurtling toward the sun. You’re on a spacecraft with seven other cantankerous crew members, readying to launch a bomb into the star to reignite it. You know at some point you might find your ship’s predecessor, a previous failed attempt of the exact same mission. You’re worried the same unknown fate will happen to you.

You’re in Annihilation (2018, dir. Alex Garland). You’re venturing toward a lighthouse in a swampland irradiated by a meteor crash some time earlier. The area, known as the Shimmer, is mutated in unknown, impossible ways. You are grieving and traumatized. Your husband, who you thought dead a year, has just returned to you after going into the swampland before you. But the man who came back to you was markedly different. Something had changed him.

None of them sound appealing.

Their writer, Alex Garland, likes to fixate on nightmares like these. The characters are pushed through intense, harmful environments that all threaten to destroy or damage their corporeal forms. Garland consistently uses the corruption of the body as a metaphor for the self and identity being unpicked and confronted. Garland’s premises entangle his protagonists in a restrictive web where the only way out is to descend further into hell. They are forced to hold a mirror up to their anxieties and insecurities, and across Garland’s three screenplays, we see a mixed reaction to their own interiority.

The scripts ask, when faced with nightmares, do we stay or run? If we face danger, what does it do to us?

Building mystery

Central to each of these scripts is a tantalizing mystery. How did the virus spread? What happened to Icarus I? What is the Shimmer, and what does it do? These questions are woven into the fabric of the world and stare at our characters unavoidably in the face. The uncertainty of the unknown is terrifying, and Garland is consistently selective with what information he reveals.

In both 28 Days Later and Annihilation, his opening scenes compound a feeling of isolation on his characters, limiting what knowledge is imparted. In the beginning of 28 Days Later, we see misguided animal activists release the Rage-infected chimpanzees, but nothing of the following outbreak until Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from his coma four weeks later. It’s a peculiar choice to contextualize the genesis of the virus, but not the spread, especially when so much time will be dedicated to Jim’s confusion while exploring deserted London. Surely there would be more tension to have the audience equally as ignorant as the protagonist, wondering what happened to cause this. But in the first moments, Garland subverts genre expectations.

The film opens with montages of civil unrest, acts of violence, and suffering. Conventionally, these scenes would be signifiers of a global crisis, such as the openings to The Road Warrior (1981) and World War Z (2013). It’s a trope to catch the audience up on how the world fell apart — but Garland and Boyle reveal that these images are not the effect of a crisis, but the cause. They are all playing out on screens surrounding Rage’s patient zero, a test monkey who feeds on the negatively-charged clips. This is the source of the bloodborne virus that turns its victims into frenzied monsters. The mystery of how the world fell apart, Garland argues, isn’t as simple as a virus being released. It is part of a cycle of pain and anger in a constant feedback loop, circling around again and again to wreak more destruction. Jim’s coma puts him out of step with reality — so his situation, and not his actions, is what saved him from the outbreak of carnage. His survival has been due to his inertia. The audience has the advantage: we view the outbreak from a safe distance, superior to Jim because of our knowledge of the virus. Playing the prologue prior to Jim’s clueless exploration of London emphasizes how abandoned and displaced he is in his environment. As a result, his identity belongs to an old world. He will be forced to forge a new one.

While Garland restricts what information about the film’s setting is given to Jim, he chooses an opposite strategy in the opening of Annihilation. Now, protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) is selective in what she reveals to the audience. The framing device shows Lena having returned, alone, from her mission into the Shimmer. She faces rows of faceless scientists behind glass walls and protective gear. A scientist (Benedict Wong) flatly probes her for information, and Lena answers mainly with, “I don’t know” — including when asked about the fates of her teammates Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She reports that the other members, Thorenson (Gina Rodrriguez) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), are dead. In the opening moments, Garland establishes Lena here as an quintessential unreliable narrator. The fact that she has survived the events of the film when the others didn’t, along with the inconsistent and insubstantial answers she gives, causes the audience to doubt the honesty and veracity of her account. What is she hiding? Why doesn’t she trust the scientists interrogating her? The audience needs to know what happened. Once the film concludes, however, we will see Lena was being completely truthful in her answers. Thorenson and Sheppard were killed by a creature, giving a concrete explanation of their fate. But the others, whose condition Lena could not express, willingly submitted themselves to the Shimmer’s alien environment, their physical form dissolving and morphing away. There is no way to describe it, so she says, “I don’t know.” The framing device effectively manipulates the audience into doubting Lena’s survival, making them keen for answers. Garland has set them up for a descent into an impossible environment where clear, communicable explanations will elude them.

Confronting fear

So our characters are stuck in nightmarish premises, and Garland refuses to tell the audience clear-cut answers about why it’s happening or how it unfolds. How do they react to this? In the case of Sunshine, it’s with constant anxiety. The ship Icarus II feels worn out, and the strain pressed on the crew has broken down functionality. “People do shit!” says Trey (Benedict Wong) when he miscalculates coordinates and causes shield damage. “They get stressed and they fuck up!” The ship is falling apart at the seams. In space, everything can go wrong.

In all three films, the smallest slip-up could end in death and failure — but a mistake, Garland argues, is avoiding fear. In 28 Days Later, when Jim and hardened survivor Selena (Naomie Harris) come across a block of flats, the stair entrance is blocked with piles of shopping trolleys. High above, father and daughter Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) are barricaded away. Frank is earnest and polite, shaking hands and smiling, sharing drink in a feigned celebration for their survival. Frank has positioned himself away from all harm, put up as many obstacles for the enemy as possible, and has adopted a policy of pretending like the current crisis isn’t absolutely terrifying. They may be alive, but survival like this, denying the fear the Infected are inflicting on them, isn’t viable. Garland instead proposes that fear is something to be confronted to survive.

A common critique of Sunshine is that it descends into a slasher film when the deformed, deranged captain of Icarus I Pinbacker (Mark Strong) sneaks aboard the ship and starts killing the crewmembers. The cerebral horror of the unknown that has defined the film up to this point is made visible in a tropey mix of mad scientist and the xenomorph from Alien. However, while the narrative tension may have lessened for the audience, this is because Garland is aiming for an emotional, character-focused resolution by having his protagonist confront his fear. Capa (Cillian Murphy), the ship’s physicist, has a recurring nightmare of falling into the surface of the sun. While others are fascinated by it, he shies away. “It’s invigorating.” says Searle (Cliff Curtis), who recreationally gazes into the sun on the observation deck. “Sounds weird,” replies Capa. But in the film’s climax, when Pinbacker holds him in a vice-like grip, Capa escapes by pulling on his burnt arm, ripping away the dead flesh and freeing himself. The enemy is made brittle, vulnerable and exposed. When Capa ignites the payload and a new sun begins to light up, he is, as Garland writes, “smiling at the miraculous sight.” He is no longer afraid of falling into the surface of the sun.

It’s disingenuous to say this resolution was always Garland’s intention. An earlier draft of the screenplay omits Capa’s recurring nightmare, and ends with Mace and Capa playing chess on the empty Icarus II. Mace has killed Pinbacker and inputs the coordinates to fly straight into the sun. Not only is Capa not personally igniting the payload, he might as well not be present for the final moments of the script. He has no fear to overcome, and ends the script in a stasis. Garland and director Danny Boyle’s collaboration meant the ending went through a number of changes before filming, and the final product successfully desensitizes Capa’s obsessive anxiety in a film that is dominated with the fear of failure.

Losing the self

While Capa is able to confront his fears, in 28 Days Later, Jim is overwhelmed by the nightmare of his environment and undergoes a regression similar to the Infected. From the outset, there is no looking back over the outbreak, nor is there any hope of looking ahead and finding a way to stop it. “Do you want us to find a cure and save the world?” Selena asks Jim. “Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets.” There is only the immediate present. This is the new norm. There is a sense of abandonment, as the soldier Sergeant Farrell tells Jim, “They quarantined us.” No one is coming to help. They have to fend for themselves. They are stuck.

Unfortunately, this leads to some severe tonal inconsistencies. The moments that feel ill-fitted are when the characters show each other pleasantries that, in this new world, feel out of place. Selena laughs while shopping for chocolate with Hannah, and playfully kisses Jim at a picnic. It’s not that they feel unrealistic, but are instead shadows of a previous version of Selena from before the outbreak. After murdering her infected friend in the opening act with a machete, any attempt to return to the person she once was is uncanny, and there is little to motivate this transformation. Like Frank’s forced niceties in his high-rise shelter, attempts to return to outdated behaviours are merely ignoring the necessity to adopt a new way of living. Jim literally slept through the apocalypse, and we spent a substantial amount of time showing how clueless and misfitting he is. It’s well established that he needs to change himself to catch up because the world isn’t going to return to its old condition.

Eventually, this realization causes drastic changes in Jim, to mixed results. Jim, Selena, and Hannah find safety with a group of soldiers, who then reveal they want to keep the women prisoner for sexual gratification and repopulation. After escaping from his captors, Jim executes a plan of luring out the soldiers and setting the Infected on them. Survival in this new world is going to need a whole other identity and worldview. During his attack, the camera catches Jim in short, fleeting glances as he momentarily runs in and out of view, shirtless, wide-eyed and snarling at his prey. He is framed as being an Infected. In order to survive and protect his friends, he has regressed into one of the violent creatures, so much so that after seeing him brutally murder a soldier, Selena swings at him, stopping when she sees upclose he has not transformed. Instead, she kisses him.

This moment feels completely wrong. Like the moments with Selena acting sweetly before, the film has committed too much time to showing that survival in this inhumane world is predicated on a descent into barbarism. Jim does not need to shove his fingers into a soldier’s eye-sockets, but he does. He has regressed past the meek, sensitive man he started the film as, and any hopeful romantic ending is out of place when Jim has turned monstrous. An alternative ending of the film was shot in which Selena and Hannah rush Jim to a hospital, where he dies on a bed, ending the film where he started. Jim being unable to return to his normal, humane self, instead of living with Selena and Hannah in an isolated cottage in the theatrical ending, is undoubtedly a better thematic fit. Selena hesitates before killing Jim because she apparently sees something that distinguishes him from an Infected, but it is unclear what. 28 Days Later suffers from an environment so nightmarish it becomes all-consuming, and it cannot find a realistic, believable way out of it.

What about Annihilation? How do you lose yourself in a constantly shifting alien environment? The fear of dying from exposure is central to Sunshine (suffocation in space, burnt by sunlight, Mace even freezes to death in the coolant tanks), and this motif appears in Annihilation — but as a slower, more insidious process, one that unpeels the hardened exteriors the characters have built to hide the emotional baggage lying beneath. The Shimmer preys on this fear and uses it for fuel, and Garland characterizes it as a spreading ecosphere that splits the self from the body and absorbs it into its mass. It takes what is most central to your being and makes it its own.

Within the Shimmer, nothing is entirely whole or original. Animals possess the DNA of other species, human beings have their genes rewritten into blooming flowers, and a monstrous bear consumes the final screams of its victims. At one point, grass starts growing from the scars along Josie’s arms. “Ventress wants to face it,” she tells Lena. “You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.” She defies the binary of Ventress and Lena, both options driven by their own insecurities, and then walks out of sight. When Lena follows, she sees only a sea of plant people. Josie could be any of them, but what matters is that she’s one of them. Like Capa, she found peace in the creation of new life, and has been consumed by something other. The self as an individual is gone.

If Sunshine’s Icarus II felt uneasy about walking in the footsteps of the dead, it is overwhelmingly worse for Lena. The team is haunted by the remnants of previous missions. Finding a rota for the most recent team in a base, Lena says, “If they were guarding the perimeter, we should, too.” All they have to steady themselves are the marks of people who came before. For Lena, however, this is also a confrontation of her own grief. Prior to her mission into the Shimmer, Lena had been living in a stasis since the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a marriage that was already strained through a lack of communication and infidelity. Throughout the mission, she sees signs of him everywhere: his frenzied eyes staring at her from camera footage, his burnt remains in the lighthouse after his suicide, the emotionless eyes of his doppelgänger. At the lighthouse, a drop of Lena’s blood is drawn into a churning alien light. There, like the cancer cells she was lecturing on at the start of the film, it divides again and again, hundreds of times over. Eventually, a strange alien creature forms, taking a human shape — Lena’s. It copies her movements, mirroring her like it’s trying to learn from her, and when it takes her face, Lena sets off a grenade in its hands. She is literally confronted by herself and immediately tries to destroy it.

After she returns from the Shimmer and is subjected to the scientists’ questions, she goes to see her husband. Uncertainty hangs between them, and they ask each other if they are still the person they resemble. Both are unsure. They hug, and an eerie yellow light appears in their eyes. It’s a touching and unsettling moment of connection between two people whose experiences in the Shimmer have changed them in indescribable ways. They had been driven apart before Kane went into the Shimmer, and it is only after Lena faces what Kane faced can they come back together. They don’t seem to mind that their biology has been rewritten. Their compassion and empathy has awoken, much like the strange alien light in their eyes.

Garland repeatedly prioritizes introspective emotional journeys over a safe, satisfying resolution to the complex premises he comes up with. The more inexorably bound a protagonist is to the climax of his script, the more successfully he sticks the landing. The earlier draft of Sunshine doesn’t work because Capa feels so external to the resolution of the conflict, and 28 Days Later suffers when it doesn’t follow through with Jim’s transformation into inhumanity. Garland traps his characters in nightmarish situations, and makes going forward, deeper into darkness and madness, the only possible direction. Exploring interiority, Garland argues, is crucial to understanding our place in overwhelming, dangerous worlds. The only way out of nightmares is to look deeper into ourselves.

Rory Doherty is a recent graduate of University of Glasgow, a screenwriter, and playwright. Obsessed with films for as long as he can remember, he has plenty experience in making short films in the woods with friends, and has worked tirelessly to make sure none of them see the light of day. He loves sci-fi, comedies, mysteries, and deep-diving into strange and complex films. He currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.